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first person

Illustration by Drew Shannon

Before the pandemic, the only private space I had at work was in my head. My cubicle was a pair of headphones with walls of carefully curated playlists. Different lists were useful on different days for different reasons: Some held songs that energized me to finish a dragging afternoon; others made stressful days tolerable.

I’ve filled most of the playlists with songs intended to stir memories – and labelled them “embarrassing alt-rock” or “cottage.” The songs were chosen for the windows they open into my past, instead of how they sound or what they mean. Joni Mitchell’s Help Me will always be the song I heard piping from a restaurant window on a hot summer day in Gravenhurst. I can’t help but smile and remember being seven years old, walking with my father. Other associations are murkier; the song and the memory have no relation. A Blue Rodeo song reminds me of a late-night walk, talking to a friend, when I was 17. I don’t know why.

Sometimes, though, I want to listen to music without the weight of memory. One day at work, deadlines looming, the twitch of an algorithm started a new song playing.

Please die Ana

For as long as you’re here we’re not

It was a song that, eventually, I remembered from high school.

I was never a Silverchair fan. Twenty years ago Ana’s Song was background noise. I had vague memories of it playing between better songs on The Edge and MuchMusic. But it summoned a generic wave of nostalgia. For a time when I had fewer responsibilities and more possibilities.

Today, sitting at my desk, it was a momentary distraction from a headache-inducing spreadsheet.

The song kept playing and I tuned out as I focused on my work.

Then the chorus began, Oh, and open fire on the needs designed / On my knees for you …” and suddenly I remembered the deep chill of a rain-soaked T-shirt clinging to my back. A muddy field under slate-grey clouds. Steam rose from a mosh pit as people danced, driven less by the fire of the music as the desire for warmth in the midst of an endless rainstorm. My legs were shaking from cold and exhaustion. Fingers, stiff from cold, struggled to peel off a single bus ticket made fragile by the rain that had soaked through my wallet.

I had never felt such strong memories from any song. I leaned back, eyes closed, and listened to the otherwise unremarkable music. The memories were so vivid it felt like a betrayal to songs I liked better.

The memories were images and feelings I didn’t know I had forgotten a moment before. Puzzle pieces I hadn’t realized I’d lost slotted themselves into the narrative I had built around this concert.

Edgefest 1999 was the first concert I ever attended. I still tell people about standing with a couple of friends, and a dozen strangers huddled under a small stand of trees on the edge of the outdoor venue. The rain that had been pouring all day was finally beginning to let up. Wet and cold, with mud splashed up to our knees, we were muttering amongst ourselves. The weather wasn’t what was annoying us, though. It was the next band’s delayed set. In the self-centredness only a teenager can get away with, we didn’t understand why a band wouldn’t want to play on a stage covered in puddles. Or we didn’t care.

After the rain finally stopped the sun made a delayed, rock star-worthy entrance. Roadies dried the stage and the concert resumed. I had no idea what band it was that we were annoyed at for keeping us all waiting. The program I had grabbed at the gate had long ago failed as a makeshift umbrella.

Twenty-one years later, while analyzing sales-performance stats, listening to Ana’s Song, a song that had barely been a memory moments before, I knew that the band I had been telling people about for decades was Silverchair.

On that summer day, the teenager I was didn’t register the delayed impact this song would have. There was no lightning-strike chord that burrowed into my soul. The song passed through me and I thought it left no trace. It was nothing more than another song played that day. Silverchair was a footnote in the concert for me.

But now, Ana’s Song has replaced all the others as the song that makes me remember that day. I can tell you what songs I heard; I’ve looked up setlists in the years since the show. I have seen bands I like more – that day and at other concerts – but the songs that I know they played don’t conjure up this same feeling of being present in that place.

Ana’s Song is the closest to time travel I have ever experienced. I have never before felt so fully like I could close my eyes and reopen them as a teenager in a muddy field.

For a few minutes, I listened with my eyes closed. For a few minutes, I could ignore a spreadsheet and escape a world unlike any I thought I would experience.

I smiled, thankful to a band I’d forgotten, for the opportunity to remember a day I thought I knew.

Matthew Singleton lives in Toronto.

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